Because of the coming concert at the Melkweg (10/17/2016) and the anniversary of the release of In God We Trust, Inc. 35 years ago, hereby a story about one of the first American (hardcore) punk bands that had an impact outside of the US. They released 4 albums and 1 EP until their disbanding in 1986. In 2001 the band reconvened, however without original singer Jello Biafra, who had (legal) disputes with his former bandmates about royalties/money.
The name Dead Kennedys is an extremely provocative, controversial name, particularly in the US. Early on in their career shows were performed using different names. By the time it was announced that the Dead Kennedys were to perform in San Fransisco on the day of the 15th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it led to heavy protests against the event. The name itself was never intended as an insult to the Kennedy family, but instead was chosen ‘to bring attention to the end of the American Dream’.
Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables
The debut album Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables was released on September 2nd 1980. This album introduced me to the Dead Kennedys (and is a part of my album top 50 (position 35)). It still is a fantastic album with sharp, fast and short (punk) songs. The lyrics are critical and (extremely) sarcastic. Just the song titles alone: Kill the Poor, Let’s Lynch the Landlord, Chemical Warfare, California Über Alles, I Kill Children, Stealing People’s Mail and Holiday in Cambodia.
Particularly the last one, which portrays middle-class youth in the US, is hilarious (and probably right):
So, you’ve been to school / For a year or two
And you know you’ve seen it all
In daddy’s car / Thinking you’ll go far
Back east your type don’t crawl
Playing ethnicky jazz / To parade your snazz
On your five-grand stereo
Braggin’ that you know / How the niggers feel cold
And the slum’s got so much soul
Unfortunately the album’s production leaves a lot to be desired. On the other hand that may be part of the album’s charm, which is globally recognized and praised as a standard in the history of (punk) rock.
Somehting I Didn;’t know at the time: the picture of the front-sleeve (burning police cars) was shot during the White Night riots of 05/21/1979, following the (due to clerical errors) minimum punishment for city-council Dan White for the murder of mayor George Moscone and city-council Harvey Milk. Dan White’s homophobia was a huge factor in the murders.
In God We Trust, Inc.
The exact release date of the EP In God We Trust, Inc is somewhat unclear. Speculation about two release dates are active: September 12th 1981 or somewhere in December 1981 (35 years ago!). The band recorded the EP in one day, on June 19th 1981, but due to an error in the tapes those recordings could not be used. On August 22nd the band re-recorded all songs and these recordings are the ones that ended up on the EP. Given the fact that the actual recordings for the EP took place in August, December 1981 as release date seems more accurate to me.
This EP impacted me enormously. Incredibly hard, fast, uncompromising hardcore punk, played with a lot of devotion and genuine anger and contempt. A controversial cover and clearly stated lyrics. The most politically charged release by the Dead Kennedys of their entire career. The EP consists of 8 songs which run 13 minutes and 54 seconds: under a quarter of a hour, but the impact was enormous. On the (American) punk scene as well as on me.
I played the EP over and over and over again. Just the titles alone give a clue as to what the songs entail: Religious Vomit, Moral Majority, Nazi Punks Fuck Off and We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now (an ‘update’ to California Über Alles: Ronald Reagan was the bigger problem). The songs didn’t lack self irony and humor. The intro to Nazi Punks Fuck Off: this is ‘fuck off’, overproduced by martin hannett, take 4. At the time, Martin Hannett was a celebrated producer, known by his work with Joy Division (by the way, Hannett didn’t have any relations with the Dead Kennedys).
The studio recordings which were done on June 19th 1981 were filmed. These were released under the name The Lost Tapes on DVD in 2003.
Plastic Surgery Disasters
November 1982 Plastic Surgery Disasters was released. Once again a political cover: the hand of a starving African child in a (well-fed) white man’s hand, a print of the winner of World Press Photo award 1980 (made by Mike Wells in Uganda). The album was a leap forward musically and was more eclectic than ever. The band had grown considerably and the album contains several (career) highlights, like Forest Fire, Riot en Bleed For Me. The fierceness may have gone, but the sarcasm and the fire certainly was not. A new phase in the life of the band. Great album! De cd-release of the album also contains In God We Trust, Inc.
On December 5th 1982 the Dead Kennedys played Paradiso Amsterdam, a concert which I wish I had attended, but didn’t unfortunately. The concert however was shortly thereafter broadcast on Dutch radio: a fantastic gig, which proved (to me anyway) how well the band really played.
The album Frankenchrist was released in 1985. The band had evolved even more. The used instruments were expanded with trumpet (!) and synthesizer. The lyrics remained critical as usual.
It was the, included with the album, poster called Penis Landscape, a print of the artwork by H.R. Giger, from 1973, that basically shut down the band (and its music). It were the days of the start of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), which was established as a direct result of Prince’s Darling Nikki (see Prince 1958-2016). The store, the distributors and the band were sued for provisioning this material to third parties, and in particular to minors. The case dragged on for years and was brought before a jury in August 1987. It resulted in aquittal. It also resulted in almost bankrupting the Dead Kennedys’ record label (Alternative Tentacles), the band’s disbanding (after releasing their last album Bedtime For Democracy in 1986) and the album to be unattainable throughout the US.
The Dead Kennedys’ image was severely damaged when members filed lawsuits against Jello Biafra. Whether or not the suits were justified, seems a legitimate question, as Biafra had, long before the lawsuits, already made public that accounting mistakes had been made concerning the royalties and that every member would be compensated. Anyway, relations between Biafra and the other band members, after the lawsuits, were soured forever. In a futile attempt to reconcile, Biafra was invited for a reunion of the original line-up. Biafra refused and proclaimed that the reunion was inspired by greed.
The Dead Kennedys logo is very strong, designed by Winston Smith, who was closely connected to the overall artwork of the band. The logo is quite easy, which (as expected) resulted in lots of copies, particularly as graffiti: one of the best known (punk)logo’s in the world.
What’s your opinion on the Dead Kennedys? have you ever seen them live during their heydays? Let me know!
Dead Kennedys image: Roger Ressmeyer / CORBIS
Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables image: discogs.com
In God We Trust, Inc. image: artistdirect.com
Platsic Surgery Disasters image: lyriki.com
Frankenchrist image: wikipedia.org
Dead Kennedys logo: Winston Smith / angryyoungandpoor.com